Nick Saban has done so many things right and better than everyone else since becoming the Crimson Tide head coach 11 years ago. One of his best skills is recruiting. Alabama had the top recruiting class from 2011 through 2017 and the results show on the field.
Below is an attempted ranking of the top 5 recruits under Saban ranked by the importance to the program. They not only reflect the ability and results of each player but also the significance of their pledge to the Tide on the national recruiting landscape.
It is tempting to add some 2007 recruits such as Rolando McClain to this list but Saban was only on the job for a month before National Signing Day 2007 and most of the eventual signees, such as McClain, were already committed before his arrival.
1. Julio Jones 2008 5-stars - This is how you announce your presence into the college football world. Despite coming off a wretched 7-6 inaugural season, Saban not only snagged a national top 3 recruit, but he protected the home state. The leak that had sprung in state needed to be mended right away. Don’t forget that this Mobile native was never a complete slam-dunk to sign with Alabama. He was also looking at Florida State and Oklahoma as well, and did not decide until the night before NSD. An additional factor that makes this number one is the position Jones played. Alabama has long been a run-first, run-second, pass-if-you-hafta team. To get a legit multi-tool receiver was quite a coup.
2. Mark Ingram 2008 4-stars - Here again, we have Saban making a statement. This one is that he can go into any part of the country and get the recruits he wants. Of course his past relationship with Ingram’s parents at Michigan State helped, but to go into Flint, Michigan and lure a 4-star to the deep south was a big building block for the future of the program. Ingram would go on to lead Alabama to a BCS national title and win the school’s first Heisman trophy in 2009.
3. Eddie Lacy 2009 4-stars - Lacy was an important get for two reasons. For one, it expanded Saban’s reach deep into LSU territory. This opened the eyes of many Louisiana recruits to the revelation that they actually had a choice of schools and it did not HAVE to be LSU. Fellow Dutchtown High School alum Landon Collins and other Looziana natives would follow suit in later recruiting classes and still do today. The second element of Lacy’s signing was that he made it cool to be the second, third, or even fourth running back at Alabama. And then there is the spin move. Wide receivers could actually thrive in Tuscaloosa.
4. Amari Cooper 2012 4-star - Here we have another territory invasion and one that still reverberates today. As protective as Cajun territory is, South Florida might be more so protective of their young. For decades, Dade County recruits traveled right down the street and signed with the ‘U’. Alabama had not gotten a to-level recruit out of South Florida since... Derrick Thomas? But Saban went in and got Cooper with straight talk. His signing led to Calvin Ridley (2015) who led to Jerry Jeudy (2017) and beyond. It also laid the groundwork for the Tide’s reluctant move to up-tempo football.
5. Tua Tagovailoa - You see where this one is going, right? The Crimson Tide had no business going to Hawaii to try and convince an entire family of Hawaiian natives to leave paradise for Alabama. That may hold true for most coaches, but not Nick Saban. Although the world has only seen a fraction of Tua’s abilities, there is great promise that he could become one of the most celebrated Tide quarterbacks of all time. This signing not only opened avenues to Hawaii and the west coast, but also to the Pacific Islanders. For years, they have been going to Hawaii and Pac-12 schools (proximity), and the Utah schools (religion). Tua Tagovailoa’s commit to Alabama has led to pledges from Cameron Latu (2018) from Salt Lake City, brother Taulia Tagovailoa (2019), and potentially 5-star Faatui Tuitele (2019) from Tua’s high school.
(In no particular order)
- A’Shawn Robinson 2013 5-star - Texas behemoth escapes misery of the Texas Longhorns to become a Consensus All-American and earn a National Championship ring.
- Arie Kouandjio 2010 4-stars - Not only did this commit lead to brother Cyrus Kouandjio (2011 5-stars), but it cemented highways to the burgeoning Mid-Atlantic region and prospects such as Jonathan Allen (2013 5-star), Minkah Fitzpatrick (2015 5-star), Terrell Lewis (2016 4-stars), Eyabi Anoma (2018 5-star), and more.
- Jesse Williams 2011 4-stars - This Tide fan favorite was pretty much discovered by accident by Arizona Western juco coaches who were conducting a clinic in Australia. He produced many Alabama fans Down Under and aided the Polynesian movement. He also plugged a hole in the defensive line after Marcell Dareus left and before A’Shawn Robinson arrived.
- AJ McCarron 2009 4-stars - With all apologies to all the wonderful quarterbacks that have played for the Tide, AJ was the first Bama field general in a long while who was more than just a “game manager”. Like Julio Jones before him, McCarron almost landed with the Sooners. Instead, he is the only Alabama QB to win back-to-back National Championships and the first of any starting QB since Matt Leinart at Southern Cal 2003 and 2004* and Tommie Frazier at Nebraska in 1994 and 1995. [*2004 vacated but I still count it.]
- Rashaan Evans 2014 5-stars - Grew up in Auburn. Parents went to Auburn. Auburn STILL can’t believe they didn’t get him. He rolled to the Tide.
- Ryan Kelly 2011 4-stars - Although it hasn’t paid off yet, getting a blue-chipper out of Ohio is rare.
- Ross Pierschbacher 2014 4-stars Cedar Falls - Some of you scholars out there may know better than me, but Ross may be the first Iowan to start for the Tide.
- Cole Mazza 2013 3-stars - Tired of lapses on special teams, Saban made sure he had a guy who could snap the ball cleanly to the kicker every time. And Mazza did, going perfect on all snaps for his entire Alabama career from 2013-2016. Well worth a scholarship.